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There Is Nothing Better Than a Smile: Carolina Panthers Aaron Gray Talks Community Ties In The NFL

There Is Nothing Better Than a Smile: Carolina Panthers Aaron Gray Talks Community Ties In The NFL

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Aaron Gray is the Community Relations Coordinator for the Carolina Panthers. His passion for the community shines through his work. At the beginning of his career with the Panthers (which began about 8 years ago), he created the Panthers Kids Club Program from scratch to further engage the younger demographic associated with the team. He continues to be innovative with his role, even taking on initiatives such as the Social Justice Committee, made up of Carolina Panthers themselves. Aaron proves to be quite the hard-worker, as detailed in this interview. Read on to learn more about Aaron’s role and the exciting events that come with it!

Please note: The interview with Aaron Gray was conducted via a typed conversation. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.

Tell us about your role as the Community Relations Coordinator of the Carolina Panthers.

In my role as a Community Relations Coordinator here with the Panthers, along with helping my coworkers, I get to work on multiple programs and/or initiatives. The initiatives that are my area of focus are military programming, Character Playbook programming, which teaches middle schoolers how to have positive interactions with each other face-to-face as well as online. In addition to those, I also assist my manager in working with our players who make up the Social Justice Committee.

What does a typical day look like for you?

During the off-season, the typical day looks very different than during the season. Also, based on whether or not we are doing an event. When talking about the off-season, a typical day is reviewing, planning, and trying to create new ways to make an impact in the areas that I work in. Meaning, I may either be reviewing the past season or seeing what ways we could improve what we have done. Such as planning new events and creating new ideas that could make an impact. With events, those could happen at any time of the year but I could be doing anything from assisting with setup and breakdown, standing in front of kids as a part of the show, or directing guests on where to go for the event. It is really just being a helping hand wherever and however I can be. During the season, things become routine by Week 4, because it is pretty much a rinse and repeat with everything. So during the season, I am preparing for the home game on Sunday, which is mailing military guests their tickets and information packets for the game and I am emailing our stadium jumbo script contacts about who will be attending the game. On Sunday, I am entertaining 7 military guests, one of which will be seated in our Row of Honor. They get a pregame field pass, tickets to the game, parking, and recognition by the entire stadium. In addition, a military guest and their family get to participate in the same style of programming.

What led you to pursuing a career in community relations?

I guess you could say it was always a part of my passion because I love helping people through something they are emotionally attached to or going through. My ultimate career goal growing up was to become a Sports Agent, and I always had this dream about bringing my clients back home to Durham, North Carolina, my hometown. That turned into me wanting to work in Player Development or Community Relations. I started out working in ticketing in 2011 for the Panthers in our Hospitality & Marketing Department. During the first four years here, I created the Panthers Kids Club Program and did a lot of fan engagement. After that, I ran the customer service side for three years. Ownership changed, and the opportunity came available, and I am now going into my 3rd season in the Community Relations Department.

What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your role?

Honestly, it may sound cliché, but the most rewarding part of my job is the smiles that go on the faces of everyone we reach each time we do an event, mail a packet or have something at the stadium for someone. When I think about it, there are three significant moments that I can say were the most rewarding. First, during the last game of the season, we gave two soldiers two tickets each to the Super Bowl. The second event was during our Salute to Service game for military: 21 random Purple Heart Soldiers and their family got to be the guests at practice, the game and recognized by the entire stadium. In addition, three players had the initials of the Purple Heart Guest on their helmets as a part of that programming. Finally, during the holiday season, the Panthers Offensive lineman Trai Turner decided to take 50 kids that are less fortunate shopping for the toys. He did not want any media attention; it was just out the kindness out of his heart. To see the kids faces in appreciation and it meant a lot to them.

The challenges of my role include that sometimes my dream ideas are either not right for the brand or not good for the time and may need to get pushed back for another time. Therefore, it is a challenge sometimes not to take it personally or get frustrated when you think you have an idea or what to do for something new. It may not be the right fit, or it may not be the right time.

You recently completed an MBA at Pfeiffer University. How has continuing your education aided your career in sport?

I believe completing my MBA will help me with my career by giving me the tools I need to go after those leadership roles that I am interested in. The focus was business leadership and I really gained a new perspective on what I can do and how hard I can work. It has helped my career by first getting on this platform, but also giving me a new passion and drive for things for my career. One thing I learned for sure is that on top of education, it is also about who you know in this industry and having an MBA has increased my network.

Prior to your current position, you worked as a marketing and hospitality assistant for the Carolina Panthers Kids Club. Tell us about this role and how it affected your career.

My role as a marketing and hospitality assistant and overseeing the Kids Club program helped me with my career in a few ways. I had multiple duties; on the hospitality side of things, I would help set up and breakdown our tent villages for companies and season ticket holders who held pregame tailgate parties outside the stadium. Inside the tent village, we would host random season ticket holders as the ticket holders of the game. Those season ticket holders get pregame passes and their names in the game program. That was a major part of the fan engagement side of things. I would also handwrite 1800-2500 birthday cards each month for season ticket holders and help the customer service team with the ticket office when needed. I started the Kids Club program from scratch and that was so fun. I would send them their packets, generate the activity page in the monthly Panthers magazine, send members their birthday cards and try to hold events for them.

It impacted my career because it helped me with my customer service skills and allowed me to make an impact on fans lives which I enjoyed. This was the beginning for me, so most importantly this created my start in the sports industry. I will be grateful for the beginning for life.

Why is sport important to you? Moreover, what drives you to create the best experience possible for sports fans and members of the Panthers community?

Sports are important to me because growing up, it was something my dad and I shared. I remember watching games with my dad so my dream was to be able to work in sports and have him enjoy the ride while I working.

When it comes to Panthers fans, I think what drives me is to do the same exact thing with them, which is finding a way to connect them to the team, by creating a memory that will last for them and their family. Whether it be having them meet a player, a military member being honoured and recognized by the Panthers, or going to a school and doing a pep rally which kids who may never thought they would ever come close to the Panthers could eventually become a Panthers Player and that could be their story. Or they are driven to eventually want to work for the Panthers. That has always be a passion.

What would you include on a list of your top 3 biggest accomplishments (or moments) between working in the sports industry?

I think my top 3 biggest accomplishments has been hiring interns that eventually became full-time workers in sports which were dreams of theirs. Being a part of that will always be my biggest accomplishment. Second, would be pulling off the 21 Purple Heart Soldiers during the Salute to Service game recognized by the entire stadium. Having it shown on TV during the game and the impact we made on those families lives will always be great moment. This was big for me because all the planning, all of the behind the scenes work we did to recognize them, was a major accomplishment. Putting that all together and having all the fans recognize them came without a dry eye in the stadium. Finally, I think one of my biggest accomplishments would be working the Super Bowl in 2016. I was able to work on the football side leading up to it and it was a great experience. It meant a lot to me because I was able to get to see a side of the business where my career can take me.

Hayley's Final Thoughts

<p>Aaron Gray’s role as the Community Relations Coordinator for the Carolina Panthers is vital to the organization. His creative ability to create new initiatives is admirable. On top of that, Aaron Gray is driven by the impact he makes on the Panthers community and thrives when seeing them smile. Aaron not only provides an experience for those lucky fans but also a memory that will last a lifetime!</p>
Connect With Aaron Gray

Interview by Hayley Michie

Posted In Industry Profiles on 3/9/2020
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